Traditional Student Demand

The Latest Bachelor’s Field of Study Trends

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Earlier this year, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) released expanded enrollment estimates for the fall 2023 term. The major headline: after four successive years of decline, undergraduate enrollment grew by 1.2% in fall 2023 – the first such uptick since the start of the pandemic.  

In response, many breathed a sigh of relief despite uneven results across sectors (e.g., public four-year school enrollment grew by 0.6% vs. 2.6% at public two-year schools). Isolating the view to four-year schools only, however, the fall 2023 enrollment bump shrinks to 0.8%, and among bachelor’s programs only, 0.7% growth. 

But what does this look like across fields of study? Was growth widespread or concentrated, and how can we explain it? 

Concentrated Growth  

Of the 38 broad fields of study (tracked through two-digit Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) codes), NSC estimates reveal an evenly divided market from fall 2022 to fall 2023: 19 fields of study grew, and 19 fields of study shrank. Even when isolating the view to the 24 largest fields of study—those with at least 50,000 enrolled students—we still see remarkable market symmetry with 12 fields up and 12 fields down.  

Figure 1 shows year-over-year enrollment changes for those 24 largest fields.  

Figure 1

Although the big picture is one of balance, this view reveals that growth was quite concentrated among just a handful of fields of study.  

As noted, 19 fields of study in total saw enrollment growth in fall 2023. Those 19 fields (12 of which are detailed above) reported enrollment growth of just over 130,000 students. Of those 19 growing fields, however, just three accounted for 76% of growth: computer and information sciences, business/management, and engineering—the only fields to report an increase of at least 15,000 students. Incredibly, computer and information sciences alone claimed 42% share of the enrollment gain followed by business/management (22%) and engineering (12%).  

The 19 shrinking fields totaled for a loss of over 54,000 students. Similarly, three fields claim the bulk of the decline. The social sciences (17%), security and protective services (16%), and health professions (15%) combined to claim almost half (49%) of the total enrollment decline, all of which saw enrollment drop by over 8,000 students.  

Getting Granular 

While Figure 1 provides a useful but broad view of general fields of study, NSC also reported enrollment estimates for more specific fields (at the four-digit CIP code level)—the first time it has done so. This view provides a more granular look at how specific undergraduate majors faired during the 2023 enrollment bump.  

Figure 2 shows the 15 largest growing and shrinking fields from 2022 to 2023. 

Detailed Bachelor’s Field of Study Trends, 2022-2023

Top Growing Fields # Change Top Shrinking Fields # Change
Computer/Information Technology Administration and Management 18,402 Criminal Justice and Corrections, General -10,036
Computer Science 17,326 Education, General -9,443
Computer and Information Sciences, General 13,063 Psychology, General -6,640
Finance and Financial Management Services 8,301 Registered Nursing, Nursing Admin., Nursing/Research and Clinical Nursing -5,168
Business/Commerce, General 7,770 Sociology -4,496
Computer Engineering 7,361 Biology, General -4,428
Teacher Education and Professional Development, Specific Levels 6,803 Political Science and Government -3,707
Research and Experimental Psychology 6,036 Health and Medical Administrative Services -3,670
Physiology, Pathology and Related Sciences 5,985 Mathematics -3,102
Marketing 4,850 History -3,090
Mechanical Engineering 4,470 English Language and Literature, General -2,879
Management Sciences and Quantitative Methods 4,231 Communication, General -2,674
Data Science 4,059 Teacher Education and Professional Development, Specific Subject Areas -2,630
Business Administration, Management and Operations 4,000 Chemical Engineering -2,284
Data Analytics 3,737 Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services, Other -2,212

Source: Eduventures’ analysis of National Student Clearinghouse enrollment estimates for four-digit CIP code fields of study; fields of study displayed represent those markets with at least 1,000 students as of fall 2023.

Figure 2

Given the findings from Figure 1, it is not a major surprise to see that the top three growing fields all fall under the computer and information sciences umbrella. IT management, computer science, and computer and information sciences are the only fields to see growth of over 10,000 students each in fall 2023.  

Business claims the greatest number of top growing areas (five): finance, business/commerce, marketing, management sciences and quantitative methods, and business administration. Together, these fields increased by almost 30,000 students.  

Readers may have been surprised to see multi/interdisciplinary studies as the fourth largest growing field in Figure 1. Findings from Figure 2 help explain why: data analytics and data science—two fields that are coded as multidisciplinary—land among the top 15 growing fields. Combined, these grew by almost 7,800 students (representing almost 90% of multi/interdisciplinary growth in Figure 1).  

Finally, engineering is the only other broad field with multiple majors appearing in Figure 2. Computer engineering and mechanical engineering account for almost 12,000 new students combined.  

Notably, among these top growing fields, one can see blurred lines across domains such as technology (computer science and computer engineering), data (data analytics and management science), and management (IT management and business administration). 

Among fields seeing the most enrollment erosion in fall 2023, we find a mix: some have been in long-term decline (e.g., education, where two major fields lost about 12,000 students combined) and others where decline is a newer phenomenon (e.g., nursing). Of note, criminal justice is the lone field where the enrollment decline exceeds 10,000 students. 

Growth Rationalized? 

So, are these trends easily rationalized? We think so.  

For one, there is solid alignment between this enrollment data and the Eduventures Prospective Student Research™ data. For example, let’s consider the top five desired bachelor’s fields of study according to high-school-aged college-bound prospects from 2020 (pre-COVID) to 2023 compared to actual enrollment performance in 2023.  

Student Interest vs. Enrollment in Top 5 Bachelor’s Fields

Field 2020 Interest 2021 Interest 2022 Interest 2023 Interest 2022-2023 Enrollment
Health 21.3% 21.2% 16.9% 17.0% -0.9%
Business 8.8% 8.9% 9.5% 10.6% +1.9%
Engineering 6.0% 5.2% 9.6% 8.9% +2.3%
Biological/Biomedical Sciences 6.0% 6.1% 8.2% 7.7% +0.8%
Computer Sciences and Support Services 4.2% 4.6% 6.7% 5.9% +9.5%

Source: Eduventures’ Prospective Student Research and NSC enrollment estimates. Red (down) and Green (up) color-coding represents the statistically significant difference from prior years.

Figure 3

Those four fields seeing statistically significant upswings in interest in the college pipeline post-pandemic also saw real enrollment growth over 2022-2023. Health, where interest is stabilizing but still markedly down, saw enrollment decline. 

Additionally, outcomes data reveals possible explanations for recent patterns. The top four growing fields in Figure 1 map to 52 of the top 100 scoring fields based on four key outcomes metrics: job growth, number of jobs, median pay of workers, and median pay of graduates. Students appear to be reading the tea leaves on their job prospects.  

The Bottom Line  

The fall 2023 enrollment bump provided a welcome enrollment reprieve for many schools. The details, however, show this bump was uneven or nonexistent across broad fields of study revealing a market that is evenly split between growing and shrinking major categories. And within those categories, it is highly concentrated within specific subsets of growing fields.  

This post provides a brief overview of what helped fuel 2023 bachelor’s enrollment from a field of study perspective. Eduventures’ forthcoming 2024 Bachelor’s Market Update report, however, details key bachelor’s market developments from the last decade, showing that, if anything, 2023 data reveals more of the same—yet intensifying—trends.  

Look for the forthcoming 2024 Bachelor’s Market Update to dive deeper into this market intelligence and ensure your institution is staying ahead of the curve on the bachelor’s market. 

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